REVIEWING a recent biography of the writer Eudora Welty, Francine Prose confessed that before reading the book she had imagined the author as “a bit like Emily Dickinson with excellent southern manners, or perhaps a more robust, less God-haunted Flannery O’Connor—one of those stay-at-home prodigies who somehow acquire an intimate knowledge of human experience without venturing far beyond the garden gate.” Despite the biographies detailing her wide travels and far-flung friendships, despite the volumes of her photographs, which demonstrate her eye for the public world, the myth of Welty as recluse has been slow to die.
Though a much beloved, even lionized figure, Miss Welty has had her critics, particularly among those who patrol the quotient of political engagement—or perceived lack of engagement—on the part of various writers and artists. Indeed, Welty wrote a famous essay entitled “Must the Novelist Crusade?” which answers the question in the negative. In that essay she wrote:
Writing fiction is an interior affair. Novels and stories always will be put down little by little out of personal feeling and personal beliefs arrived at alone and at firsthand over a period of time as time is needed. To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose. Fiction has, and must keep, a private address. For life is lived in a private place; where it means anything is inside the mind and heart.
This has been taken to signal Welty’s belief that the artist should retreat from the public sphere and thus avoid the moral imperative of addressing social injustice.
Setting aside for a moment whether this is a fair characterization of her argument, one thing is sure: as one scans the cultural landscape more than forty years after Miss Welty’s essay was published, it is clear that the landscape is replete with artist-crusaders—or, as they are even more inelegantly called these days, artist-activists. And amid the self-righteous posturing, much is being lost.
To say this is not to advocate a retreat into the palace of art, or to deny that artists are citizens with an obligation to speak the truth as they see it and to participate in the political process. There is nothing wrong with writing a poem and then publishing an op-ed in a newspaper or magazine, or even appearing at a rally for a candidate or cause. It might be possible to discuss the issue of proportionality, but that is merely a prudential issue, not a matter of principle.
What concerns me is the growing trend that leads writers and artists to feel impelled to make their ideological commitments the defining characteristic of their creative work. It is a commonplace that our cultural elite are secular and cavalier about morality, but the problem with the world today is not too little morality, but too much. The pathology of moralism is often laid at the feet of religion—and God knows that there’s plenty of history to fuel that assertion—but many of the most earnest Puritans today are self-described secularists.
Compared to the crude morality tales of the past, the current crop of highminded art is often more sophisticated, more circumspect about its edifying intentions. But look carefully and you can detect all the hallmarks of the Puritan sensibility: the tendency to reduce drama and ambiguity to allegory, where characters devolve into types and abstractions; the use of particular issues as illustrations (domestic violence, say, instead of drunkenness or lechery); the movement toward a concluding moral or a purgation of the malefactors.
The old compact between the artist and the recipient of the art—that one interacts with the work as if on a journey of exploration—has been abrogated. If you open a novel by a writer like Barbara Kingsolver, who established and funded the Bellwether Prize for the Literature of Social Change, are you a reactionary for questioning the social import of her story? When Anne Lamott peppered her latest book, Plan B, with a series of snarly asides criticizing President George W. Bush, even many of her fans felt left out in the cold. Significantly, her earlier book, Traveling Mercies, which left little doubt about its author’s basic political outlook, continues to outsell Plan B by a large margin.
It would be wrong to see the politicization of art as the pet project of the avant garde; it’s a thoroughly mainstream phenomenon. In fact, it’s big business. The reigning queen of moral self-improvement in America, Oprah Winfrey, has turned it into a book club. While I’m as grateful as any writer to Winfrey for still caring about the written word, and for occasionally including classic authors such as William Faulkner on her list, more often than not she selects books that are little more than thinly veiled advertisements for the therapeutic mentality. Which might be defined as the care and nurture of one’s personal sense of wellbeing. One might even assign the titles of Oprah episodes to some of these novels: Coping with Grief. Escaping a Bad Relationship. Aging Gracefully: The Best is Yet to Come!
In short, the new literature of righteous feeling prefers melodrama to either comedy or tragedy.
One of the classic forms of artistic engagement with the public realm has been the comic form known as satire, but satire is in a bad way, too. The best satire available today is on television—whether on Comedy Central or The Simpsons. Since television is a self-referential medium that lends itself to self-parody, one can see why satire flourishes there. There was a time during the early days of the New Journalism when satire seemed to be making a comeback, particularly in the early essays and articles of Tom Wolfe. But ever since Wolfe decided that he was the
reincarnation of Charles Dickens, his long, bloated novels only demonstrate satiric
energy in brief flashes.
The dearth of satire in high literature and art is an outright loss. The great satirists, such as Aristophanes, Juvenal, Erasmus, Swift, Hogarth, and Waugh, combined a relish for anarchic mayhem with a strong moral sensibility. That is the paradox of satire: the anarchic defense of order. Because the best satire works through irony, it tends to respect the intelligence of its readers—allowing space for the gaps to be filled and the topsy-turvydom to be made right, if only in one’s mind. Another virtue of satire is its ability to demonstrate how private vices and foibles become magnified and transformed into public disorder and hypocrisy.
Nor is tragedy compatible with the sort of boosterism that attends the art of “social change.” This is undoubtedly because tragedy calls the very notion of progress into question, revealing the contingent nature of our experience and what Samuel Johnson called “the vanity of human wishes.” And yet tragedy is one of the highest forms of artistic engagement with political life. One of the traditional modes of tragedy involves the terrifying conflict between two good things. For Antigone, it is the private, sacred imperative to honor the dead against the good of obedience to lawful authority.
One of the few writers capable of this sort of tragic vision today is Cormac McCarthy, particularly in his Border Trilogy. McCarthy is one of those figures likely to be deemed insufficiently political, but among the many achievements of this trilogy is that it holds up a mirror to American efforts to bring about justice in the world. The two protagonists, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, are virtuous American heroes: self-reliant, compassionate, rooted in the ancient rhythms of nature. Yet whenever they cross the border to another culture in order to bring about justice, they bring ruin on themselves and those they love. In their attempts to restore something lost or to retrieve something stolen, they fail to see that their efforts to do good cause grief and suffering, without obtaining their object. There are times when suffering and endurance are better than action, even when action is undertaken for virtuous reasons. A dark vision, perhaps, but one that can elicit more profound reflection on the pros and cons of American intervention around the world than an entire library of contemporary politicized books.
Though there are many pitfalls awaiting the would-be artist-activist, I believe it is possible to pursue this course with both dignity and respect for the integrity of art. The model I would uphold is Wendell Berry, who is both an extraordinarily gracious man and a man of adamantine—some would say extreme—principles. Berry has long been a champion of environmental causes and a harsh critic of big business. His ideas may provoke strong reactions, but his words are temperate, measured. What gives his writing about political matters such resonance and gravitas is that it emerges out of geography, history, and community. His opinions are less constructed than they grow organically from his life. And because his community is rooted in a particular soil, his advocacy avoids feeling narrow and ideological.
Berry’s poetry and fiction are rooted in private experience—love, marriage, family, work—and yet the Kentucky farmers he writes about are public-spirited people. After all, the public realm begins with one’s neighbors, and his characters spend a great deal of time in each other’s company. No one in a Berry novel could say, with a Dostoyevsky character, that they love mankind but can’t stand their neighbors.
There is a saying that all politics is local, but perhaps another truth is that we all bring our private lives into the public realm. To say that art has a private address, as Eudora Welty did, is not to refuse a moral imperative; it is to remind us that both art and life begin in the immediacy and concreteness of the local. A whole book of essays has been published demonstrating how Miss Welty’s stories contain “responses to public political issues—political corruption, racial apartheid, poverty, McCarthyism, and the Rosenberg trials, violent resistance to the civil rights movement, and southern reverence for identities of the cultural past.” But our response to the great issues of the day begins with the way we cook meals, greet one another, do our jobs, and raise our families.
According to Welty, “great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel. Eventually, it may show us how to face our feelings and face our actions and to have new inklings about what they mean.”
It may sound like heresy, but I believe that religion is as much about how to feel as it is how to behave. In the end, the best antidote to moralism run amok is true religion, not secularism. About a year before his election to the papacy, Joseph Ratzinger gave the funeral homily for an Italian priest named Luigi Giussani, who had founded a lay movement that had nearly disintegrated in the political turmoil of the late 1960s. Ratzinger characterized Giussani’s vision—a vision that successfully moved beyond that upheaval—in this way: “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a packet of dogmas, a moralism, Christianity is rather an encounter, a love story; it is an event.” He went on to say:
It was the great temptation of that moment to transform Christianity into a moralism and moralism into politics, to substitute believing with doing. Because what does faith imply? We can say, “In this moment we have to do something.” And all the same, in this way, by substituting faith with moralism, believing with doing, we fall into particularisms, we lose most of all the criteria and the orientations, and in the end we don’t build, we divide.
In art, as in faith, the heart of the matter is not doing, but the wonder we experience—the way we feel—in the face of the encounter. And we are never more willing to change and to build than when we fall in love.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.